For part 1 in this series, click here.

“For the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.  For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.  For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.  For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.  Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and “exchanged” the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

Therefore, God handed them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they “exchanged” the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!  Amen.

For this reason, God handed them over to dishonorable passions.  For their women “exchanged” natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

And because they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God handed them over to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.  They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness.  They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.  Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” (Romans 1:18-32)

Spiritual idolatry and sexual immorality are veritable flip sides of the same coin, as the dynamics inherent in both acts are governed by precisely the same logic. 

The overall point of this devastating passage is that everything broken and destructive in the personal and social lives of fallen human beings is properly traced back to our prior rejection of the centrality and supremacy of God in our lives.  The order of Paul’s flow of thought is crucial here—the situation first depicted in 1:18-23 inevitably and necessarily produces the catastrophe then described in 1:24-32.  As Tim Keller points out, “Paul shows that idolatry is not only one sin among many, but what is fundamentally wrong with the human heart…Paul goes on to make a long list of sins that create misery and evil in the world, but they all find their roots in this soil, the inexorable human drive for ‘god-making.’  In other words, idolatry is the reason we ever do anything wrong.”[1]

This interpretation is the consensus of among biblical scholars:

“The thought moves from an explanation and denunciation of idolatry to an explanation and denunciation of the fracturing of human life that results from it.”[2]

“The sexual immorality that pervades humanity has its roots in the rejection of the true God in favor of gods of their own making.”[3]

“The indictment here is that failure to acknowledge God as Creator results inevitably in a sequence of false relations toward God, toward man, and toward creation itself.”[4]

Through the intentional repetition of the word “exchange” at various stages of his argument, Paul organically links the vertical act of idolatry and the horizontal act of sexual immorality.  Indeed, the progression of his thought indicates that the similarities inhering in these two human sins testify to a more profound correlation between them than most people think.  Simply put, these two basic “refusals” of God’s original intentions for human beings in the spiritual and sexual dimensions operate in remarkably parallel fashion within our subjective experience.  As Richard Hays proposes, “The language of ‘exchange’ plays a central role in this passage, emphasizing the direct parallelism between the rejection of God and the rejection of created sexual roles.”[5]

Both idolatry and sexual immorality essentially consist of disordered, misplaced desires.  When human beings turn away from God to worship and serve what He has created instead of Him, and when they stray outside the boundaries of His expressed will for sexual relationships, the same dispositional pattern is writ large on their seared consciences. 

For Paul, human beings under the delusional influences of idolatry are consistently, fundamentally, and tragically prone to misrelate to the beauty and glory of God.  Though our most primal desires for happiness and meaning ought to be fastened exclusively onto God Himself as their central, unrivaled object—as He rightly deserves to be—we prefer instead to inappropriately cram an assortment of created things into the vacuous cavern which is left behind in the wake of our spiritual defection away from the Lord.  This frantic cramming is drive by the futile hope that they will at last fill the emptiness.  Yet these good created things , which we repeatedly turn to in ways which one ought only turn to God, were never intended to satisfy such transcendental yearnings.  Therefore they do not possess the splendorous capacities anticipated by those who look upon them with such desperation.  Instead, they leave behind only shattered dreams and deep relational fracturing at every level of our existence. 

However, even this disastrous state of affairs does not exhaust the whole story of human sin for Paul—not by far.  Once we have decisively misdirected our God-given longings for “worship,” illicitly latching them onto some aspect of creation instead of the Creator, we then inevitably proceed to “copy and paste” that same fractured pattern onto our sexual desires and practices.  This is the heart of the sexual dilemma of humanity.

When human beings engage in illegitimate and forbidden sexual behaviors, the same dynamics which are at play vertically in idolatry are once more set loose on the horizontal level of our relationships and pursuits.  Specifically, a worthy desire—for either worship or sex—is misdirected to various ill-suited objects which, however good they are in themselves by virtue of creation, were nonetheless never meant to be the receivers or containers of such passionate longings.  Thus disordered desire is the essence of both idolatry and sexual immorality

[1] Tim Keller, Counterfeit Gods, pp. 165-66

[2] N. T. Wright, Romans, p. 430

[3] Doug Moo, Romans, p. 117

[4] James Dunn, Romans, p. 56

[5] Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, p. 386